Premier Doug Ford wants to see Ontario Place redeveloped. A preservation battle over the vital piece of Canada’s postwar architectural history is looming.
Coated in grime and rust, Ontario Place is a sorry shadow of its once exuberant past. It’s little wonder the provincial government under Premier Doug Ford is targeting the site for redevelopment.
For almost a decade, Toronto’s Space Age amusement park has sat forlorn and mostly dormant on its downtown waterfront. Its artificial islands, theme park rides, and floating exhibition pods are closed to the public and in dire need of restoration. Only the domed Cinesphere and the outdoor performance venues are open to the public on a regular basis. To get there, movie and concert goers must schlep across a sea of empty parking lots and over a busy highway.
In a worldwide call for proposals released last week, the Ford government officially put to rest rumors that condos or a casino would be built on the site. The latter was a concern because, like his late brother, former mayor Rob Ford, Doug has shown an insatiable fondness for hurdy-gurdy. In 2013, Toronto city council overwhelmingly rejected a downtown casino proposal championed by Rob and in 2011, while a city councillor, Doug dreamed about scrapping slow-moving plans for the revitalization of the Port Lands area in favor of a mall with a Ferris wheel, monorail, and a boat-in hotel.
Although gaming is off the table, the government’s development guidelines—created without input from Toronto residents—do not require future uses to maintain public access to the site or retain the acclaimed $30 million Trillium Park, which opened at the east end of the site in 2017. The Ford government’s Toronto transit plan, released earlier this year, includes a subway station close to the former amusement park, suggesting that whatever it expects to happen will be big enough to fill trains.
In a preemptive effort to protect the Ontario Place buildings from demolition, the City of Toronto has started the process of adding Ontario Place to its Heritage Register—a mostly symbolic act that would not realistically provide any legal protection to the provincially-owned structures. At stake in the looming preservation battle is a vital piece of Canada’s postwar cultural and architectural history. Ontario Place is an important leftover from of an aspirational decade when Toronto and Ontario finally began to slough its gloomy, waspy shell in search of a brighter future.
The 96-acre Ontario Place park was built across three artificial islands in Lake Ontario beginning in the late 1960s under Conservative premier John Robarts. The park was intended to replace the Ontario government’s permanent exhibit at the Canadian National Exhibition grounds, located just to the north, and also to continue the success and popularity of the 1967 World’s Fair in Montreal. The tent-like Ontario pavilion at Expo 67, designed by architect Macy DuBois, was a primary inspiration for Ontario Place. It contained a number of exhibits around the theme of youth and a 500-seat theater inside screened the government-produced film A Place to Stand, which became one of the surprise hits of the event.
Expo 67 occurred at the same time Toronto was beginning to rediscover its once-industrial Lake Ontario shoreline. One of the first major revitalizations the city planned for its waterfront was a massive 1,250-acre mixed-use development called Harbour City. It would have housed upwards of 50,000 people on a man-made archipelago connected via a network of canals, lagoons, pedestrian paths, and transit routes. The project was backed by urbanist and Toronto resident Jane Jacobs, who called it “probably the most important advance in planning for cities that has been made in this century.”
But Toronto’s Modernist Venice-on-the-lake never amounted to more than a few architectural models and a stack of planning documents. The project died out amid increasing local political opposition to megaprojects and concern about where the Toronto Island airport, which would be relocated as part of the development, would end up.
At the same time as his government was planning Harbour City, Robarts was finding inspiration in the hundreds letters pouring into his office praising the Ontario pavilion at Expo, many of which suggested moving it to the Toronto waterfront at the end of the event. Instead, Robarts opted to build a new, permanent park in the mold of Expo that would blend educational exhibits, boosterish Ontario-related displays, and family-friendly amusement park rides. Admission would be affordable—just $1 at its highest—and many of the attractions would be free.
Ontario Place was to be located directly beside Harbour City and designed by the same architects, Craig, Zeidler and Strong. The firm, headed by Bauhaus-influenced Eberhard Zeidler, delivered a concept based around five interconnected floating exhibition pods and a triodetic dome (a geodesic dome that is not a full sphere) containing the world’s largest movie screen and the world’s first permanent IMAX installation.
The plan also included a performance stage called the Forum, space for amusement park rides, and a scattering of restaurants and concessions. “We used the famous Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Denmark as a guideline,” said Jim Ramsay, the head of the Ontario Place project. It was to be “a place with the atmosphere of life and vitality where the people of Ontario can reaffirm their identity,” said Zeidler, who was inspired by London’s Crystal Palace and the Eiffel Tower as examples of “how buildings symbolize the aspirations of their time.”
“[Those buildings] all reached beyond the functional problems of providing exhibit space and succeeded in exploiting their technology in helping to shape the society of tomorrow,” he said. “Ontario Place will give a glimpse of the city of tomorrow.”
Construction started in 1969 and the the $23-million Ontario Place opened to the public in May 1971. The park was open during the summer each year and drew people from across the country with its earnest, family-friendly attractions but never made money. Admission prices climbed but the park always required an annual subsidy to recoup its costs. In the 40 years it was open, attractions came and went, and so eventually did the attendance, which dwindled to the point where it no longer made financial sense to keep it open. The park closed in 2011, though parts of the site, including the Cinesphere, Budweiser Stage, and Echo Beach performance venues are still in use.
The great gift of Ontario Place may be Toronto’s newfound love for its lake. Since the park opened the local, provincial, and national governments have invested billions making the water’s edge a desirable destination through new parks and the ongoing transformation of the post-industrial Port Lands, minus Ford’s desired Ferris wheel (for now).
No doubt Ontario Place needs a considerable amount of work to make it into anything useful at all. The inevitable corrosion and decay of the decades have left the place tired and shabby. It will cost millions just to bring it back to its original state.
Its saving grace is that it is essentially a space to be filled. Even before it was open, Eberhard Zeidler knew that to survive long-term, Ontario Place would need to transcend the amusements and trends of its day. “During its lifetime it may have to house many activities—probably even different uses,” he said in 1971. “It must be flexible.”